Peter Berger on Globalization and Religion

Posted: May 19, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Discipleship/Sanctification, Social Issues

I listened to Speaking of Faith program (transcript and audio here) from 2006 today that talked about how globalization has impacted religion.  You might be familiar with the rather Eurocentric thesis that said that secularism would accompany modernization, just as it had in Europe.  In fact, sociologist Peter Berger held this view as well, before realizing that it just hasn’t played out that way.

Rather, he said, modernity has brought pluralism and increased contact with multiple points of view.  People don’t live in areas where everyone shares a common belief system, where religion is taken for granted.

Now, this taken-for-granted status is lost with the coming of pluralism because you realize there are other possibilities of belief and of life. And therefore people are forced to make choices, and that is a very big change.

I’ve described modernity as a gigantic transformation from destiny to choice. People must choose what they believe, how they define themselves, how they are to live, which is quite a burden. I mean, it can be a liberation, but it’s also a burden. And then you have to ask, what are the ways in which people can cope with this loss of taken-for-granted status?

There are three options, as he sees it:

One is to try to restore taken-for-grantedness in the entire society, the totalitarian system. Now, the other little more plausible project is to forget about the larger society and to create a taken-for-granted subculture. So, if you like, it’s the sectarian option. You create little groups, tightly controlled, and within those groups, whatever the religious tradition is, it again becomes taken for granted. There are lots of examples of this. It’s also difficult because of the turbulent pluralism outside. So you have to keep very tight controls over your members. The third possibility is to engage with the pluralism and to enter into dialogue with the alternatives that exist to your own traditional belief system. That is difficult also. There are no risk-free options in any of this. But it’s possible, and many people go that way.

This helps to conceptualize the different responses we see around the world to modernization and globalization, I think.

  1. I think that the Christian lives within tension of all 3 suggested views. Our aim is for a Christocentric society, where Christ reigns and His enemies are subdued (#1)…however, that will not happen IMO until Christ returns….so we live in the tension of being in a pluralistic world, but not of it (#2), and therefore do enforce a dual-citizenship model. Our heavenly citizenship does center around “controls” like worship, sacraments, catechism, etc. Our engagement of our pluralistic neighbors is two-fold(#3): as a heavenly citizen, seeking their salvation in Christ AND as an earthly citizen, loving them indiscriminately as an end in itself in fulfillment of the second part of the Great Commandment. We heed the words of Jeremiah 29:
    4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

  2. Scott Kistler says:

    This is well said, Rick. It makes a lot of sense to balance those three. I’m glad that you quoted from Jeremiah there. That seems to be an influential attitude among culture-engaging Christians today. In a video series on Christians and culture that I saw Tim Keller referred to seeking the good of the city as part of his philosophy.

    • Keller is good. I have found that Christians who gravitate strongly to one paradigm, over and against the others, tend to be ineffective. Those who acknowledge the tension that all paradigms present and embrace that tension can speak more holistically.

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